Friday, December 4, 2009

Books on Writing

I've never much enjoyed reading books about the craft of writing. They seemed so ... dry. Boring even. I have a few Peter Elbow books (my boss Julie at Brave Writer's hero) on my shelves along with the unavoidable Strunk and White's Elements of Style, and that's as far as I've been willing to push the "craft of writing" books. I have always valued the read-lots-of-books-and-learn-to-write-by-osmosis school of writing craft, and that's where my focus has been.

Until this year.

I read the above two books at the behest of writing friends and fell in love with both books, so much so, in fact, that I now own them (thanks to Anne Lamott's style and teachings on craft in Bird by Bird entranced me. Her sense of humor and dry wit pervade the book, combined with a great deal of wisdom about writing -- both the craft of writing and the job of writer. It's a funky look at writing that is all "Anne."  I have long been a fan of her work, reading her trilogy of books on Christian spirituality: Traveling Mercies, Plan B, and Grace Eventually, all of which I highly recommend if "colorful" language isn't a problem for you, and if you don't mind liberal politics sprinkled liberally throughout, especially in the middle book. I also read one of her novels, Blue Shoes which I liked in an Anne-Tyler-meets-Dave-Barry sort of way (but with much more Anne Tyler). And I've been blessed to see her interviewed at the Writers' Symposium by the Sea at Point Loma Nazarene University two years ago -- truly a highlight of my literary fanship. (If you're interested, the video of the interview may be seen HERE.) But I think, as much as I adore her trilogy, that Bird by Bird has become my favorite Anne Lamott book. And if you saw my well-scribbled and vastly note-taken trilogy volumes and quotation journals, you'll be justly incredulous as a result of that confession.

The second book I've pictured above is a much older and far-lesser-known gem of a book. Recommended to me by my lovely poet friend Kathryn Belsey (who is graduating with her MFA in Writing/Poetry next month), Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande is a jewel in the crown of all writing books. Published in 1934, every piece of advice is as applicable now as it was seventy-five years ago. I think I read somewhere (and I could be wrong) that this slim volume has never been out of print since its publication. I read it much the way I read Bird by Bird: slowly, thoughtfully, with much underlining and scribbling in the margins. Kathryn (Kitty to her home-made friends) had written intriguing notes in the copy she lent me, and once I ordered my own, I transcribed her notes first in pen (wishing I could imitate her beautiful-for-a-lefty penmanship competently) before I started adding my own comments in pencil. This little book is filled with ideas for developing discipline as a writer (invaluable stuff, that!) and with exercises to help develop depth and creativity in writing. Her focus is less on "craft" and more on "magic" in writing -- that magincal creativity that is necessary to every good writer. And she doesn't pull punches -- no, not in the least. If you would like to read a more in-depth review of the book, I recommend this article from Absolute Write.

Only one other book about the craft of writing has intrigued me, and I ordered it through our county library system in November. It's been sitting for a week and a half on my desk, and I picked it up last night to see if I really wanted to spend time on it when Julian of Norwich (see post below) has so captured my imagination. This writing book has been recommended to me by various writers, and although I'm not a particular fan of his writing, this book is jolly fun thus far. The book? On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Yes, Stephen King, the horror novelist. I've only read two or three of his books back in my college years; I remember being too scared to walk the ultra-safe Point Loma Nazarene University campus after dark once I read Salem's Lot, but his short story collection Skeleton Key intrigued me. The sci-fi stories didn't interest me, but several of the less horrific stories were amazingly creative and, incredibly, somehow entrancing. I have read sixty-some pages of On Writing thus far and am having trouble putting it down. I gained a tiny glimpse of how his oh-so-creative mind works and am really appreciating the sliver of life represented in the book of this prolific writer who felt "ashamed" of his writing until he was in his forties.

So I suppose that this year I am transforming more into a writer, or perhaps into a writer more interested in the nuts-and-bolts of the writing process, rather than simply admiring the end result -- as I have been heretofor. I hope that reading these books about writing will help me to develop my craft a little more as I continue bird by bird in becoming a writer and working on writing.


sarah said...

lovely recommendations. even professional writers think King's advice book is brilliant - I have heard many of them rave about it.

Susanne Barrett said...

Sarah -- it's hilarious, but I'm only near the beginning. But it's a wise book, too. I really like it.

Carol Peters said...

Susanne, this is my first visit to your wonderful blog, since you loved the Brande (as did I) and are enjoying the King (ditto), I paste below my list of other classics that I enjoyed in this small genre:

Ray Bradbury, Zen and the Art of Writing
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel
Frank O'Connor, The Lonely Voice
Wallace Stegner, On Teaching and Writing Fiction
Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write
Edith Wharton, The Writing of Fiction



Jean Wise said...

I discovered your blog this morning and really enjoyed your posts. I think we have much in common in our interests and reading. You have a great list on your favorite blogs that I plan to explore.

I invite you to check out my two blogs is my writers groups blog is my personal blog.

I look forward to continuing to follow your writings. Thank you and God bless!

Susanne Barrett said...

Welcome, Carol and Jean --

I have added many of the books you listed, Carol, to my own "to read" list, especially since I am a die-hard Annie Dillard fan. :)

Will definitely check our your blogs too, Jean.

Would write more, but I am in a tearing hurry --

Advent blessings!


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